Gilbert Theater presents ‘The Laramie Project’

08MatthewShepard“The Laramie Project” opens May 30 at Gilbert Theater on Green Street. It tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming. He was beaten and left for dead by two men in October 1998. Days later, he died from his injuries.

“The Laramie Project,” written by members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project and originally produced in 2000, is about the aftermath of Matthew’s death and the community’s reactions. Known as “verbatim theater,” the play and dialogue were culled from hundreds of interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theater Group members during their visit to Laramie, Wyoming. Larry Carlisle directs the production at Gilbert Theater.

“‘The Laramie Project’ is decidedly different from other productions in that the emphasis is on the characters and their monologues and not on sets or props,” Carlisle said. Carlisle takes a minimalist approach to directing his cast, preferring to let them interpret the characters. “I always say an actor’s job is to make the show look good — my job is to make the actors look good.”

Each member of the cast plays as many as 10 different characters, and some of them are drastically different. The emotional range necessary to bounce back and forth is astounding, but the cast takes it all in stride. Deannah Robinson plays five characters. “It’s a bit of a challenge, and it’s definitely a learning experience, but it’s something I’ll take with me,” she said.

James Merkle plays Matt Galloway, the bartender and the last person to see Shepard before the attack. He’s guilt-ridden for having not seen what was about to happen. But Merkle also plays Aaron McKinney, one of the two men who killed Shepard. "We have to come up with different ways of creating the characters so they don’t sound the same. It can be challenging, but also fun,” said Galloway.

Chris Walker plays both Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, and Rev. Fred Phelps. Phelps was the head of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. His parishioners, made up almost entirely of his family members, gained national attention for protesting at the funerals of gay people.

Merkle, who spoke with a palpable reverence for Shepard, said: “You’re seeing two spectrums — those that were horrified by what happened and those who were defending the attackers.”

He also feels the play is especially timely in respect to current political situations. “I find it very relevant today of what’s going on out there,” he said. “It almost seems like we’re heading back to that moment. If we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. But there’s also a sign of hope — hope that we can move past this.”

While Shepard has become the face of the movement against hate crimes, “The Laramie Project” has become the proverbial mirror in society’s face. It continues to reflect the many reactions to the LGBTQ community and the dangers its members face.

“The Laramie Project” opens May 30. Performances are at 8 p.m. May 30 – June 1 and Jun 5 -8. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. June 1-2 and June 8-9. Visit to purchase tickets.

My love affair with music

11MusicBeing a music lover, I’ve gone to many a concert in my 29 years. I grew up secretly “borrowing” albums from my mom’s CD collection, back when being in a mail-order CD club was the cool thing to do. Many weekends, my mom and I would hit I-95 to head out to the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh to hear one of her favorite artists. I’m guessing I surprised her when she noticed I could sing along to all the songs at my first Alanis Morissette concert — not my proudest 6-year-old moment. Needless to say, her CD collection was moved to the top shelf of the bookcase after that particular show.

Nonetheless, even an unreachable CD collection couldn’t stop my love affair with music. And live music? What a treat! I would find any reason for my mom to take me to see live music. I even asked to go see my 60-year-old, 6th grade P.E. teacher play in his beach music band in a run-down, hole-in-the-wall restaurant one summer when I was in middle school. And, after seeing NSYNC perform at the “Dean Dome” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in ’01, I knew I had the whole college thing figured out. Desperate? I think so.

But I had to be around music. It moved me. I needed to feel it pounding in my chest. I needed to know every lyric, every guitar solo, every era, every genre, anything I could get my hands (and ears) on.

I had a good friend in middle school, a best friend, who introduced me to my love of lyrics — figuring them out, what they meant, where they came from and what they said about the human race. We’d write out lyrics we didn’t understand and pick them apart until we did. I found myself dissecting songs I had heard a million times, trying to find a song I identified with past the good beat and interesting melody. I fell in love with words written beautifully. Poetry moved me. Songs came alive for me when I could find a lyric I could sing with all my heart because it felt like my own. Where my words failed me, music explained me.

I found a song for everything — missing my friends, graduation, heartbreak, feeling known and seen, dancing, happiness, freedom. What a release it is to sing a song that resonates with you deep in the core of who you are. It makes you feel like someone gets you. It lets you know you are not alone.

I think that’s why I love worship music, which is just like that but on a whole different playing field. It helps me “get” Jesus.

At WCLN Christian 105.7, we have a portion of the day we like to call Midday Praise. It’s an hour and a half of worship music, full of lyrics centered around who Jesus is, how Jesus is and how we should respond to his love and grace. Boy, am I always rocked to my core. Connecting that truth that I am loved beyond anything I could ever imagine with a song that digs deep into my heart really connects what I know with what I feel, or at least what I desire to feel. I definitely know Jesus loves me ... but I want to feel it, especially on days when it feels otherwise. Worship music helps me do that.

Check out Midday Praise if you get a chance, every weekday from 10:30 a.m. until noon on 105.7 FM. I know I need a little extra peace during the day. Maybe you could use it too.

Review: Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s ‘Maid Marian’ is enchanting

12marian 2 1 copyI was recently invited to view Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s “Maid Marian” at the historic 1897 Poe House. The production was enchanting. The brick-paved courtyard was lined with homemade quilts and Turkish carpets for guests to sit on while enjoying the show. The cast interacted with guests, introducing one another, explaining the history of the play and creating opportunities for the audience to enjoy it on many levels. STS raffled a walk-on part to audience members, which proved to be a hilarious addition to the production. STS also auctioned an opportunity to sit on a fabulous velvet lounge.

The story of Robin Hood has enthralled audiences since the 16th century, but Jessica Osnoe, an actress and playwright with the company, has reimagined it from a decidedly female perspective for the company’s Honey Series, celebrating women in theater.

It would have been easy for Osnoe to take a hyperfeminist perspective in her rewrite, depicting men as accessories and usurping the traditional legend of Robin Hood for Marian. But Osnoe used a gentle approach, implying Marian’s evolution as a vigilante, or benefactor to the masses, ran parallel with Robin Hood. Instead of removing him from the scenario, she created a level playing field on which they met as true equals. This, in turn, leaves the audience with the hope of their eventual romance.

The play begins as the devious Sheriff of Nottingham suggests his disciple, Guy of Gisborne, marry Lady Marian so he might control her family’s estate — and their profit. The high-borne Marian, played by Jen Pommerenke, and her younger sister Emma, played by Laura Voytko, abandon the estate and flee to Sherwood Forest with several women from the village.

Marian and Emma are joined by Marian’s cousin Eleanor, played by Osnoe. They teach other women to fight, then disguise themselves as performers so they can move about the countryside without drawing the sheriff’s attention. Then, they plunder! They rob the rich to feed the poor in proper Robin Hood tradition. Marian and her all-girl gang establish themselves as legends amongst the villagers and proper criminals with the sheriff and Sir Guy.

Pommerenke wows the audience with her performance. She gives depth to what has traditionally been a two-dimensional character. Her Marian is strong, innovative and, at times, humorous.

Voytko fearlessly introduces Marian’s sister Emma to the world. She’s precocious and unapologetic, educated and playfully charming.

And Osnoe brings strength and determination to the character of Eleanor. She’s a stabilizing influence for Marian, a voice of reason in their world of chaos.

Remaining show dates for “Maid Marian” are May 9-12. The shows begin at 7:30 p.m., and there is a preshow at 6:45 p.m. General admission is $25. Advance general admission is $17.50. Advance senior/military admission is $15, and advance student tickets are $10.

Photo: Jen Pommerenke as Maid Marian (left) and Laura Voytko as Emma Fitzwalter, Maid Marian’s sister (right)

4th Friday Art Attack set

08ArtFayetteville’s 4th Fridays are a community tradition. On the 4th Friday of every month, people of all ages are welcome to enjoy a night on the town — downtown that is — with free entertainment that differs from one month to the next. Fayetteville’s historical district meets modern art with May’s theme: Art Attack. The event takes place May 24 from 6-10 p.m.

“We’ll have live art up and down the street, from Hay Street to Person Street and the side streets,” said Johanna Brum, the event co-chair for this month’s 4th Friday.

Instead of only selling previously made art, local artists will paint and dance and sculpt in front of a live audience. “Dancers (will be) out on the street; we’ll have body painters out. It’s the first time we’ve done it,” said Brum. To broaden audience appeal, Art Attack will be more PG-13 than kid-oriented, so a Kids Corner will be set up by Greg’s Pottery on Maxwell Street. It will feature face-painting, balloon animals and other activities.

Downtown businesses are getting involved with 4th Friday a little differently this month. “They’re actually going to sponsor the artists,” said Brum. “It’ll be free for almost all of the artists.” The businesses will support the artists one-on-one, and each artist will set up shop in front of his or her respective store sponsor.

Systel will sponsor Second Time Around, an old-fashioned swing band featured on Jazz Juice Radio. “Fifteen people with horns and all kinds of instruments (play) swing music from the ’40s, and they cover more contemporary music,” said Jane Casto, Headquarters manager at Cumberland County Public Library. “They have been coming for several years — it’s kind of a tradition.” Refreshments will be available.

The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County will play an important role in the event as well. According to Christina Williams, marketing specialist at the Arts Council, 4th Friday attendees can expect an exciting display for the evening. “We will be opening our ‘Public Works’ exhibit, which is traditionally our largest exhibition of the year,” said Williams. This exhibition is open to artists of any age and skill level in Cumberland County and the surrounding areas. The Parsons, a local folk band, will perform outside the Arts Council building, and Fayetteville PWC will be inside handing out free conservation goodies.

Art Attack is a large-scale version of a weekly event hosted by Shawn Adkins at The Rock Shop. It is designed to unite all types of artists, from photographers to tattoo artists, with one platform. Adkins is now the owner of Back-A-Round Records downtown.

For more information about 4th Friday, visit or call the Cool Spring Downtown District at 910-223-1089.

Cape Fear Regional Theatre presents musical ‘Memphis’

09Memphis 1In the 1950s, Memphis, Tennessee, was subject to Jim Crow laws and segregation. R&B and rock ’n’ roll played to two distinctly different crowds — until DJ Dewy Philips changed things. Take a journey with Cape Fear Regional Theatre to “Memphis,” where rock ’n’ roll was born. The show runs May 9-26.

“Memphis” is inspired by reallife events and people. According to director Suzanne Agins, the central character is a white DJ, named Huey Calhoun in the play, who makes it his mission to expose his white audience to the blues. He is played by Matthew Mucha and is based on real-life DJ Dewy Philips. The story is about his drive to expand people’s minds about music and his relationship with African American blues singer Felicia Farrell, a character who is not based on a real-life counterpart. “It is all this great R&B and early rock ’n’ roll coming from the African American community, and this guy who made it his life’s work to get it out to whites,” said Agins.

When she started thinking about how to tell the story best, Agins, who also directed “Dreamgirls” at CFRT in 2017, reached back to her previous experience in Fayetteville. “I was here for ‘Dreamgirls,’ and it was an amazing thing to be surround by amazing women,” she said.

Agins noticed that Felicia, played by Shonica Gooden, didn’t have strong female characters to relate to in the story. “I thought about the main character and wondered why she didn’t have a friend to talk to,” said Agins. “I looked at (the character of ) her brother and thought there is nothing about this (character) that is inherently male. It is a human who cares deeply for his sister.

“We asked the licensing company if we could change this to a female character and made our case. … We cast an amazing actress, and she is killing it.” The script didn’t change, just the gender of one character.

Gooden didn’t know the role of her character’s brother was going to change to that of a sister, but she’s embraced it. “I think it has made it better,” she said. “We brought that sisterly bond into the story, making it that much more authentic onstage.”

CFRT Marketing Director Ashley Owen noted that the story covers an important topic — race. “It delves into the relationship between white and black people in that time,” she said. “The message is one of loving people when you come together and experience something special. It is an important story to tell, and we work hard to do it well, if for no other reason than for people to be able to talk about the message.”

David Robbins plays Bobby Dupree, Huey’s best friend. For him, the music adds to an already meaty performance. “‘Memphis’ won best score for the year it came out,” he said. “You will be leaving the theater humming the tunes.”

Ricardo Morgan is a Fayetteville native and no stranger to the CFRT stage. “Member of the Wedding,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Trip to Bountiful” are a few of the shows he’s performed in. Morgan is in the ensemble. “Given the theme of the show and climate of our nation, this is another opportunity for the arts to help heal,” he said. “And in doing so, we talk about preconceptions. You will leave singing, but you will also leave having asked yourself questions. Questions we ask daily come to life onstage — it is about a sense of community and supporting each other.” Due to the content, the show is rated PG-13.

The play runs May 9-26. Visit for tickets and information. Look for theme nights and special events, including Red Carpet Ready, Opening Night Dance Party, Mimosa Brunch and Military Night, on the website.

Photo:  Matthew Mucha as Huey Calhoun (left) and Shonica Gooden as Felicia Farrell (right)

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